Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Waiting For Superman (2010)

Not about this Superman. :(

When I first read the premise of Waiting for Superman, I was disappointed, yet interested. The disappointment was a result of learning that it was not a film about comic book characters, and people wishing that they were real (alright, I’ll stop trying to be a comedian); but my interest peaked when I learned that it was about education. I have somewhat of an interest in education, which is the understatement of the century. Up until last year, I was studying to be a teacher, but realized that it was not what I was meant to do. So, I left. I still have a respect for most teachers. They have a difficult, stressful, job, and they receive little respect from the public. And we in Canada are blessed with an education system that is one of the best in the world. The same thing can’t be said for the U.S.

In a word, the United States Education system is broken. They rank near the bottom in education scores, and reading levels have remained stagnant since the 1970’s. No Child Left Behind was supposed to fix the education system, but it was akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on a house that just got hit by a tornado. It is admirable to have a standard to strive towards, but when each school district and state have their own standards, it is ineffective.

Throughout Waiting for Superman, we follow five students from different backgrounds, go through the education system that is broken, that their parents know is broken, but still go because there are no other options. The parents of these children want a better education than what they’ve received growing up, and look for any option that will help their kids. Most of the stories are engaging, with the exception of one, and you become attached to the students, and hope that they end up succeeding.

David Guggenheim hoped to use this film as a call to action for education reform, much like his previous feature An Inconvenient Truth strengthened the green movement in 2007. While his film will indeed promote discussion and debate, I feel that it missed the mark in its treatment of the issue, and likely alienated the segment of the population who could have benefited from learning about this issue.

Guggenheim claims that teacher’s unions , the issue of tenure, and a bloated bureaucracy are the reason why American schools are failing, ignoring the fact that number one ranked Finland and other countries that rank higher than the U.S. also have unionized teachers. While I personally believe that unions are another broken system (to paraphrase an education reformer quoted in the film, “the world has changed, but unions have remained the same”), blaming the entire poor state of education of unions and the terrible teachers that are protected by unions and tenure is misguided. If you are blaming the unions, you are also blaming the truly amazing teachers who make a difference. Despite some brief clips from his previous documentary on education, Guggenheim does not show examples effective teachers in the public school system. Why would he? He sends his kids to a private school. He doesn’t feel that the public school system is effective, and showing examples of effectiveness in public schools would undermine his message.

Waiting For Superman is blatantly in favour of charter schools; They are the Superman referred to in the title, swooping in to save the children from a path to destruction! You’d almost mistake the film for an orientation video for the Harlem Children’s Zone. We see graphs that supposedly show that students in charter schools achieve higher scores than their public school brethren, even though there are surveys that show that the achievement rate of public schools and charter schools are basically even. Guggenheim twists data to support his opinion, showing charter schools as beacons of success, with caring teachers that guarantee that your child will be prepared for college when they leave the school. It’s a pitch that convinces the parents of the children featured, along with hundreds of other hopeful parents, to sign up for a lottery to get into the school (the school is required to hold a lottery if the number of students who apply is greater than the number of available spaces).

Guggenheim tells the viewer in the film that it is too late to fix the current education system. Any attempt at reforming the system is doomed to end in failure. Teacher’s unions will block any legislation that will hold them accountable, even if it makes sense. The only hope for a decent education in America is to hope that your number is chosen from hundreds. The scenes at the lottery are heartbreaking as a viewer. You get attached to the kids, and you feel crushed when their numbers aren’t called. Out of the five students featured, only one student’s number is called (the less-interesting one). Fortunately, circumstances change for one of the other students, ending the movie on a more positive note. I would be interested in seeing a follow-up on the students featured ten years from now, to see how their circumstances may have changed or if they're in the same spot as before.

The best way to sum up Waiting For Superman: A missed opportunity. It is a film that could have fired up the people who needed to be fired up about education, and shed some light on the challenges teachers face, and the flaws that need addressing (the disparity between the funding of inner-city schools and suburban schools was not even touched upon). Instead, the people who could have been impacted by this film leave thinking “I can’t change anything. Why bother trying?”

EDIT: Fixed some typos. It should be gramatically correct now.

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